Can Flyers sustain altitude?

Swiss league’s ‘90s revelation surprised in regular season

26.02.2011
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When friends become foes: Zurich’s Bengt-Åke Gustafsson and Kloten’s Anders Eldebrink will challenge each other in the Swiss quarterfinals. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

KLOTEN, Switzerland – Kloten, Zurich’s suburban airport town, had the most successful Swiss hockey team of the 1990s. After some slow years, the team has fought their way back to the top ranks of the National League A.

The Kloten Flyers led the league for most of this season until they were caught by HC Davos on the finishing line and ended up one point behind Davos in the regular season.

Still, the 38-12 record came as a nice surprise since the club has been struggling both on the ice and financially since its heydays.

Trying to find the reasons by looking at transferred players? Not really. Also the well-known youth department can’t be the only reason as other clubs – especially local rival ZSC Lions Zurich – have caught up in that department.

The reason is pretty simple: stability. While other clubs swap coaches once or twice a year, Anders Eldebrink has been behind the Kloten bench since 2004. That makes the Swede the third-longest serving coach behind only Davos’ Arno Del Curto and Genève-Servette’s Chris McSorley.

But Eldebrink was employed by the club long before that. He played for Kloten from 1990 to 1995 and was part of three championship teams when Kloten won the league four times in a row. Also his assistant, Felix Hollenstein, was one of the legendary players from this golden era, if not the most admired one.

The years of consistency in the coaching position – that were a helpful contrast to some turmoil off the ice with substantial financial losses and change of ownership – seem to pay off, finally.

The Kloten Flyers don’t necessarily have any real top stars. Finnish forward Tommi Santala is ninth in league scoring, followed by Canadian defenceman Micki Du Pont, who is 14th.

Ronnie Rüeger’s 90.9 save percentage is good, but just sixth among starting goalkeepers in the league.

The Kloten Flyers don’t score the most goals – 170 in regular season, third behind Davos and Zug – neither did they concede the fewest, 111. Their power-play efficiency is fourth in the league, their box play ranks third in the stats.

The Flyers are neither excellent, nor spectacular, but they’re one of the most complete and consistent teams in the league. That’s what makes them fly high.

Kloten has a number of good, but not dominating, players including more and more young talents who have been tested with the national team.

Defencemen Eric Blum, Félicien Du Bois, Patrick von Gunten, and forwards Matthias Bieber, Simon Bodenmann, Denis Hollenstein and Victor Stancescu got the call from national team coach Sean Simpson for the international breaks this season while Santala represented Finland in the 2010 IIHF World Championship.

“We have a good mix of players. We have experienced players who make sure that we stay with both feet on the ground and young players who are very determined and who never give up,” von Gunten said.

“We take it day-by-day, and it has worked out pretty well. We knew that we could play like this as long as we were not hit by injuries. Coach Eldebrink gives us lot of freedom in the way we play our games and that’s what we need.”

One question many experts had was: How long can they keep their pace? And what will they look like in the post-season?

Some felt confirmed in their reservations when the team actually had quite some bad luck with injuries in the last few weeks, when a seven-game winning streak was followed by four defeats in six matches. But Kloten ended the regular season with three wins.

Von Gunten hopes that the injuries won’t be a big issue.

“We have a good defence and I get lots of confidence from the coaching staff. And the younger guys who jumped in did a good job,” he said.

Von Gunten has become one of the more experienced players already at age 26. He moved from the B-league to Kloten in 2006, and he even made it to the Vancouver Olympics without lots of international experience.

“I had to jump in at the deep end. I got the call for the camp one day before the flight to Canada and when I had already planned my vacation – and ended up playing at the Olympics,” said von Gunten, who even scored the game-tying goal that sent the Canada-Switzerland preliminary-round game into overtime and a shootout, which the Canadians eventually won. “It was surely the highlight of my career.”

Today, February 26, the playoffs begin. With their strong regular season the Kloten Flyers joined the circle of favourites that also includes record champion HC Davos and SC Bern, the reigning champion with the highest budget in the league.

The big goal is to make the finals, same as two years ago. “It would be great to play against Davos and avenge for the lost final series,” von Gunten said. “But we have a well-balanced league and every playoff team has the chance to make the final.”

Already the first opponent could be a tough one. The seventh-ranked team is no one less than archrival ZSC Lions Zurich, the winner of the Champions Hockey League and of the Victoria Cup in 2009.

Zurich has been a disappointment in the Swiss league following their international success. Sean Simpson left ZSC as a coach last spring to take over the national team, and his assistant Colin Muller was fired only five weeks into the season.

As a successor, the ZSC Lions found an illustrious personality with Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, the former world-class player who was coaching the Swedish national team from 2005 to 2010, and who became the first coach to win the World Championship and the Olympics in the same year in 2006.

He was joined behind the bench by another IIHF Hall of Famer, Polish coach Henryk Gruth, who has worked in the organization’s youth department for many years.

During his time with Tre Kronor, Gustafsson had an assistant coach with the name of Anders Eldebrink. This Swedish coaching clash makes the Zurich playoff derby even more special.

“For us players it’s not important who the opponent is. The league is well-balanced and every opponent is a difficult task,” Santala said. “The games against them in the regular season were pretty tight and I guess this won’t change. We have to be ready.”

The Swiss quarterfinals will also have another derby to offer, the one between SC Bern and SCL Tigers Langnau, where Carl Anton Gustafsson, the son of the ZSC coach, is playing.

HC Davos vs. Fribourg-Gottéron and EV Zug vs. Genève-Servette are the other pairings.

MARTIN MERK


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